longer fiction

Why won’t you do what I want?

Java, strait

The large white yacht was small compared to tankers loading at the port in Aceh. On an old wooden pier, a portable crane strained but lifted a boxed crate out of the hold. Painted on the side of the box was Exxon Mobil in English and in Indonesian the words ‘gas pipe.’ A black Mercedes idled at the far edge of the quay. Parked behind it and facing the opposite direction was a flatbed truck.

Three men in caftans stood silently on the dock as the operation proceeded. They looked around warily in the opaque fog of the early morning. Another man in a tan tunic and tan pants stood alone at the bow of the boat. A crew of two men on the boat and three on the dock swung the crate and gently set it on a large pallet. One took the Kalashnikov from his shoulder and swung up onto a forklift.

The forklift operator lifted the crate, turned around and drove to the flatbed truck. He  put the box on a  slowly centered it through a series of careful lifts rather than pushing or dragging the pallet with the forks.   As the men strapped down the load, the man in the tunic took a picture with his camera, climbed down the ladder and got into the Mercedes which drove off.

***

Saleh listened to what the Indonesian said and curled his mouth. He was close to losing his temper. The humidity in Jakarta was intolerable, the man was a pedant and his Arabic was bad. His English was worse but at least he realized it.

“You had three objectives: to secure a place to get the box off the ship, to get the box into a container and to get the container to the Malahayati port. This should take two hours. Can you tell me why after two days it is not at the port?”

“The Doctor finishes three weeks late, I don’t know why, I think he is waiting for the materials.”

This nearly pushes Saleh over the edge. “First these are things you are not supposed to know. You Indonesians are very messy.”

“I am not Indonesian. I am Achanese.” Both men look at each other but sunglasses prevent any communications.  The Indonesian looks past the Saudi into the park while Saleh looks to the Hilton across the parking lot.

“Our networks depend on limiting information to only those who must have it. If a brother does not have discipline he is of no value.”  Saleh waited for a response and then continued, “But that still doesn’t explain why the delivery to the port has not been made.”

 

 

“The paper work that was submitted to a delivery date of four weeks ago. They must change it and now somehow they cannot find it. The truck is waiting to do the delivery when the paperwork is in place.”

“When does the container ship leave port?”

“The 26th

“This is a day later than the planned delivery. The plan has been executed poorly.”

“The doctor needs more time to finish his work.”

Saleh sighed. “Again, things you shouldn’t know. Did you see anyone watching you?

“No. We took every precaution and made sure.”

The Egyptian cut him off “Did you do anything to bring attention to yourselves?

“No”

“Did your men carry guns?”

“Weren’t the orders not to?

“Attacks by the GAM mean many workers have guns. My men looked no different than others by the docks.”

It occurs to Saleh that he has been facing the hotel the whole time. He put his hand over his mouth, “Meet me over there, at the other end of the park, in three hours. No, don’t point! No phone. Just be here with word that the container is on the ship.”

“Insha’Allah”

“Insha’Allah”

Thirty

There is something about this time in history that reminds me of the Thirty Years War. I can’t tell if there is some cycle in society that causes whole swathes of humanity to simply forego perspective.  The evil of 75 years ago was a directed, calculated and executed some very self interested and mostly spectacularly amoral groups. There didn’t have to be a lot of them but they exploited human nature, societal mechanism and flawed political systems to accrue power regardless of outcome. We’ve seen this over and over again in human history.

But the past couple of decades are different and we are seeing a kind of grass roots insanity, a bottoms up disconnect with reality, compassion, empathy that is rarely seen

 

***

At about the same time a CIA officer at the US Embassy in Singapore named Gunther was on the phone with Paul Jones, an analyst in Langley Va.  They were trying to decide whether to bring a theory they had to Gunther’s supervisor. Jones had been tracking an Egyptian affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood who was making frequent trips to  Indonesia.

Gunther was skeptical of Jones concerns about the man, “He doesn’t fit the profile. He is in the brotherhood which has always kept its distance from  Al-Qaeda.”

“But his name came up in the Al-Qaeda communications and then the detainee in Bagram mentions his name…’

“He mentioned a name that was similar.”

“It was close and the prisoner only spoke Pashtun.  He has also travelled to Islamabad on at least 6 occasions in last year. You thought he might have connections with the Paksitani military.”

“No, I said he might be doing work for the Pakistani military. He is a PhD in engineering. That doesn’t make him Al-Qaeda.”

In the middle of a stack of papers on the corner of his desk was a copy of an itinerary for an Asif Chaudry travelling to Jakarta on the 15th of November 2004, checking into the Grand Nanggroe hotel in Banda Aceh for two nights and returning to Karachi on the on the 25th of December. Attached was a note from another case officer mentioning that Chaudry worked for the Pakistan military in the weapons division.

“No it doesn’t make him Al-Qaeda but the pattern indicates a plan developing. When you add the Kazakhstani uranium rumor with the intel that there is in all likelihood tritium in the hands of fundamentalists in Indonesia.”

“We have no proof that uranium is in Jakarta. How old are you, Jones?” Gunther asked

“28. I ‘ve been doing this for 3 years now.”

“Honestly I appreciate your work. You get me a lot of good information and you are always responsive. You got to understand that if we go up the chain with this there are two possible outcomes. One, if you can’t defend your case, you lose credibility and look stupid. That’s not only not good for your career,  it constrains your ability to get other things done. The other is that we get movement on this and it turns out to be a dead end and you’ve just wasted valuable time and resources and maybe assets in the field. Which means those other bad things times ten and you get guilt on top of it.”

“You forgot the 3rd outcome. I could be right.”

“Being right is for the certain. Are you certain?”

“No.But when you factor the gravity of the situation even a low probability outcome has be taken seriously.” He grabbed an empty manila folder and put the papers form the floor into it. He put it in his inbox.

Gunther relented “All right. How do you want to write it up?”

“Saleh is AQ, we ascertain this through mentions and your prisoner, he travels to Pakistan where he has contact with the military, this we know for certain and we know about AQ sympathizers in Paki military. He then starts taking trips to Indonesia,  and specifically to Banda Aceh, where the local separatist movement has collaborated with Al-Qaeda. We are fairly certain that AQ related groups have tritium,  the most difficult to obtain  fuel for a thermonuclear device and we know that uranium from a Kazak stockpile went missing and is rumored to have been smuggled through Pakistan and out an Indian Ocean port…um…” Jones lost his nerve for a moment. He had to commit to his theory now.

Gunther could tell. “What? Look, you’ve got to tie it together. If want me to do this you got to give me something to sell.”

With new conviction Jones stated “Saleh has the connections, the inclination and the resources to coordinate the assembly of a nuclear device and deploy it or make it available for a terrorist attack.”

Gunther was surprised how much he was satisfied with the statement. Still he was a veteran of intelligence. “If you are prepared to write it up that strong I’ll deliver it. I have to go to a Christmas party now.  So just get it to me as soon as you can and I’ll track down my superior.  Talk to you later.” And he hung up the phone.

Behavior

Believe me, people were created to be altruistic. I am surprised that biologists or psychologists have not discovered the neurobiology that is altruism. And I will let you in on an another secret: love is real but it is just out of control altruism. Everything people have and become, all civilization and progress is the product of a concerned and extroverted beneficence. The best people have a lot of it but even the worst have a great deal of it.

So why is there selfishness in the world? And why is there all that evil? The first question is easy, you can’t a bunch of people lacking in self interest running around. The whole thing would grind to a halt. A whole world populated by  Alphonses and Gastons constantly saying  “after you . no, after you,” would be boring an d pointless.  Self interest drives people. That said they often get very confused what is really in their self interest. But that confusion and conflict can lead to productive behaviors. Let me mention that productive and destructive behaviors are not mutually exclusive.  People need to want .

People have free will and develop their own individuality and so might engage in a wide variety of behaviors but in society through structures, norms, more selfish or visceral behavior mores are constrained.  There are three ways in which this subverted in a generally negative way

The wiring gets wrong. In simpler creatures these flaws end up being a evolutionary dead end. Because the squirrel that loves the smell of rubber or the red snapper that admires the grace of the dolphin won’t stick around long or have a chance to mate. The evolutionary mechanism that has been so successful  in finding the mutations that are successful will also generate a sorts of distorted failures. But human society

But several things have gone wrong

Some otherwise anti-social behavior is actually positively rewarded in specific roles that more normal individuals don’t want to engage in

Finally, conformity has the multiplicative effect on the self preservation instinct of social groups

Anosmia

I can neither smell nor taste.  This visual is really my domain: I see it in my mind and it becomes. I am the lover of all I survey. Nature itself, simple or fecund, pleases me and consists of two things beauty and beauty in motion. From floating hydrogen in an imperfect vacuum to Watteau

Model

The problem is I have had to adjust the model. This one has had some obvious, spectacular  successes and the achievements are coming fast and furious while my ability to control and influence it has gotten more crude and ineffective. I have never created anything so amazing and complex. Everyday brings new discoveries that surprise even me

Dust

In the beginning there was something.

Something else, something  that I really don’t want to relate, save to say it was tragic and, after such a promising start and a total investment, devastating. Of course it was better than the time before and that was better than the time before that, but I am not in this for the learning.  It took a long time to admit to myself it was unsalvageable. I prevented myself from thinking that thought. And then I did and all the hope bled out of me. So I took it all the way down, I brought it to dust.

In the beginning there was no moocow coming down the road and it was not a very good time, just the darkness and the dust and my thoughts. I say my thoughts but I didn’t not allow them leash. I did not want to dwell on the failure and I did not wish to start planning again. In my sadness I achieved a kind of negation or stasis that surprises even me. So much time went by with no noise, no movement, no light.

Inattention is a kind of decision. I suppose boredom wore me down and I can’t abide nothingness. Regret faded and  after much time, the dust began to move. I let it. Simple atoms drifting, softly in the silence, not so much as a wave or a surge or a collision and but a languorous wash. Tell me how something moves and I will tell you what it is. Complex systems may make quick, intricate, acute motions but the simplest movements are sustaining.   And so it began again.

It was easy to allow the old model to engage. The basic physics of the thing works very well

 

The Finger

A white yacht was certainly out of place when compared to the tankers loading at the Achanese port. No one noticed because the GAM, a local separatist group, had been making attacks on the oil industry and everyone was too focused on what might come form inland than to worry about a stupid yacht. The old wooden pier had been undermined by rot and was on the verge of collapse; the  portable crane lifting 2000 pound box should have been enough to collapse it and while it wouldn’t have solved the materials problem. crate out of the hold. Painted on the side of the box was Exxon Mobil in English and in Indonesian the words ‘gas pipe.’ A black Mercedes idled at the far edge of the quay.

Three men in caftans stood silently on the dock as the operation proceeded. They looked around warily in the opaque fog of the early morning. Another man in a tan tunic and tan pants stood on the bow of the boat. A crew of two men on the boat and three on the dock swung the crate and gently set it on a large pallet. One took the Kalashnikov from his shoulder and swung up onto a forklift.

The forklift operator put the box on a flatbed truck, slowly centering it through a series of careful lifts rather than pushing or dragging.  As the men strapped down the load, the man in the tunic took a picture with his camera, climbed down the ladder and got into the Mercedes which drove off.

Later that day, the yacht which apparently had neither dropped anchor  nor been moored to the pier, drifted out and was caught in the wake of a tanker and pulled out into the Malacca Strait where it was later found with no one aboard.

***

Saleh listened to what the Indonesian said and curled his mouth. He was close to losing his temper. The humidity in Jakarta was intolerable, the man was a pedant and his Arabic was bad. His English was worse but at least he realized it.

“You had three objectives: to secure a place to get the box off the ship, to get the box into a container and to get the container to the Malahayati port. This should take two hours. Can you tell me why after two days it is not at the port?”

“The Doctor finishes three weeks late, I don’t know why, I think he is waiting for the materials.”

This nearly pushes Saleh over the edge. “First these are things you are not supposed to know. You Indonesians are very messy.”

“I am not Indonesian. I am Achanese.” Both men look at each other but sunglasses prevent any communications.  The Indonesian looks past the Saudi into the park while Saleh looks to the Hilton across the parking lot.

“Our networks depend on limiting information to only those who must have it. If a brother does not have discipline he is of no value.”  Saleh waited for a response and then continued, “But that still doesn’t explain why the delivery to the port has not been made.”

 

 

“The paper work that was submitted to a delivery date of four weeks ago. They must change it and now somehow they cannot find it. The truck is waiting to do the delivery when the paperwork is in place.”

“When does the container ship leave port?”

“The 26th

“This is a day later than the planned delivery. The plan has been executed poorly.”

“The doctor needs more time to finish his work.”

Saleh sighed. “Again, things you shouldn’t know. Did you see anyone watching you?

“No. We took every precaution and made sure.”

The Egyptian cut him off “Did you do anything to bring attention to yourselves?

“No”

“Did your men carry guns?”

“Weren’t the orders not to?

“Attacks by the GAM mean many workers have guns. My men looked no different than others by the docks.”

It occurs to Saleh that he has been facing the hotel the whole time and that even any video camera, even the hotel security cameras, could have captured the entire conversation.  He put his hand over his mouth, “Meet me over there, at the other end of the park, in three hours. No, don’t point! No phone. Just be here with word that the container is on the ship.”

“Insha’Allah”

“Insha’Allah

The hotel security cameras had been turned off in a cost reduction measure

***

At about the same time a CIA officer at the US Embassy in Singapore named Gunther was on the phone with Paul Jones, an analyst in Langley Va.  They were trying to decide whether to bring a theory they had to Gunther’s supervisor. Jones had been tracking an Egyptian affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood who was making frequent trips to  Indonesia.

Gunther was skeptical of Jones concerns about the man, “He doesn’t fit the profile. He is in the brotherhood which has always kept its distance from  Al-Qaeda.”

“But his name came up in the Al-Qaeda communications and then the detainee in Bagram mentions his name…’

“He mentioned a name that was similar.”

“It was close and the prisoner only spoke Pashtun.  He has also travelled to Islamabad on at least 6 occasions in last year. You thought he might have connections with the Paksitani military.”

“No, I said he might be doing work for the Pakistani military. He is a PhD in engineering. That doesn’t make him Al-Qaeda.”

The conversation had been going on for about a half hour and Jones’ coffee was cold. He stood up to reach his thermos and as he did a stack of new un-reviewed intelligence slid off the corner of his desk. As it settled on the floor and sitting on top was a copy of an itinerary for an Asif Chaudry travelling to Jakarta on the 15th of November 2004, checking into the Grand Nanggroe hotel in Banda Aceh for two nights and returning to Karachi on the on the 25th of December. Attached was a note from another case officer mentioning that Chaudry worked for the Pakistan military in the weapons division. Jones picked up the stack and returned it to the desk, flipping the papers so that the itinerary was now on the bottom of the stack.

“No it doesn’t make him Al-Qaeda but the pattern indicates a plan developing. When you add the Kazakhstani uranium rumor with the intel that there is in all likelihood tritium in the hands of fundamentalists in Indonesia.”

“We have no proof that uranium is in Jakarta. How old are you, Jones?” Gunther asked

“28. I ‘ve been doing this for 3 years now.”

“Honestly I appreciate your work. You get me a lot of good information and you are always responsive. You got to understand that if we go up the chain with this there are two possible outcomes. One, if you can’t defend your case, you lose credibility and look stupid. That’s not only not good for your career,  it constrains your ability to get other things done. The other is that we get movement on this and it turns out to be a dead end and you’ve just wasted valuable time and resources and maybe assets in the field. Which means those other bad things times ten and you get guilt on top of it.”

“You forgot the 3rd outcome. I could be right.”

“Being right is for the certain. Are you certain?”

“No.” Jones said and dropped his elbows onto the desk in exasperation. The same stack of papers slid to the floor. The Chaudry itinerary was once again on top. He continued “But when you factor the gravity of the situation even a low probability outcome has be taken seriously.” He grabbed an empty manila folder and put the papers form the floor into it. He put it in his inbox.

Gunther relented “All right. How do you want to write it up?”

“Saleh is AQ, we ascertain this through mentions and your prisoner, he travels to Pakistan where he has contact with the military, this we know for certain and we know about AQ sympathizers in Paki military. He then starts taking trips to Indonesia,  and specifically to Banda Aceh, where the local separatist movement has collaborated with Al-Qaeda. We are fairly certain that AQ related groups have tritium,  the most difficult to obtain  fuel for a thermonuclear device and we know that uranium from a Kazak stockpile went missing and is rumored to have been smuggled through Pakistan and out an Indian Ocean port…um…” Jones lost his nerve for a moment. He had to commit to his theory now.

Gunther could tell. “What? Look, you’ve got to tie it together. If want me to do this you got to give me something to sell.”

With new conviction Jones stated “Saleh has the connections, the inclination and the resources to coordinate the assembly of a nuclear device and deploy it or make it available for a terrorist attack.”

Gunther was surprised how much he was satisfied with the statement. Still he was a veteran of intelligence. “If you are prepared to write it up that strong I’ll deliver it. I have to go to a Christmas party now.  So just get it to me as soon as you can and I’ll track down my superior. “

Jones neglected all other work that day and spent the rest of the day agonizing over the document. Part of it was getting the words just right but also alternated between suppressing a sense of urgency  (the bureaucracy would be served) and wondering if he was destroying his career.

The paperwork at the port in Banda Aceh was never found but was re written and the container was approved for shipment on the 23rd of December. So on December 24 2004 a container with a fully operational thermonuclear device inside was in Malahayati  and would be loaded onto a container ship to arrive at the port of Los Angeles on 14 days later.

There are things that I do that are easy and terrible. I think people prefer to believe that the decisions of the powerful are always easy and if the results are horrific, so be it. Humans are baffling when it comes to power.  But I try to influence, I try to do nuance, I want to suggest and nudge, but complexity and free will and psychology defeat me again and again.  So I am stuck with these clumsy, desperate and disproportionate acts.  Contrary to the thoughts of many, I have no appetite for horror.

At a little before one am, subduction occurred by the island of Simeule. The earthquake was one of the largest ever recorded. It caused a Tsunami that killed over 200,000 people.  Huge walls of water came and destroyed them, but only after luring many with a bounty of seafood  on the beach as the ocean first receded. Some of these people were the poorest in the world and strangely enough some of the richest. Many were simple folk living in villages along the ocean. In some cases entire families and villages were wiped out.  Death is almost always terrifying and I don’t know how to measure what is more or less traumatic, but I do think of mothers and fathers desperately trying to save children pointlessly, in a monstrous chaos.

The container with the nuclear bomb was picked up by the wave and eventually came to rest at a depth of 6000 feet on the floor of the Indian Ocean,  200 miles from Banda Aceh.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s